2001 has been described as a "watershed year" for EU expansion. This year the European Union is expected to announce a concrete date for enlargement - most likely after Belgium inherits the EU's rotating presidency from Sweden in July. The man co-ordinating the Czech Republic's efforts to join the Union is first Deputy Foreign Minister Pavel Telicka. Rob Cameron has the story.
Mr Telicka says his country can expect significant progress in membership talks this year, although he pointed out it was too early to say whether a concrete date for enlargement would be announced by Sweden in June, or Belgium in December. Mr Telicka told reporters that a planned visit to Prague by Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt and members of the European Commission was an indication that Belgium plans to accelerate the expansion process when it takes over the presidency from Sweden. The Swedish Prime Minister, Goran Persson, has himself committed his country to speeding up enlargement in the first half of 2001. So certainly a year of optimism for the Czechs, who are safely in the first group of candidates for membership. But the EU says that when it comes to a concrete date, it might decide to differentiate between the candidates in the two groups. Mr Telicka said it was up to the Czech Republic to ensure it remained firmly in the first group of candidates. The Czech Republic announced this week that it was dropping its requests for transition periods in key areas such as the liberalisation of the electricity, fuel, and telecoms markets, which, as Mr Telicka pointed out, should help further the talks. The Czech Republic - which shares the first group with Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, Estonia and Cyprus - hope to end negotiations in June next year and be ready to join the Union in 2003. At December's Nice Summit, EU leaders promised to be ready to admit new members from the end of 2002 and said they hoped the first new members would join in time for the 2004 European elections.